Monday, April 03, 2006

We're back!

We've actually been back three weeks now but it's taken this long to catch up with everything.

Send us an email or give us a call and let us know how you all are. We're looking forward to catching up with everyone we've not seen already.

A Flickr site will follow shortly with all our pics.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

To the border

After a break-neck tour of Cambodia with so many early starts the trip to the border was the earliest start of them all: 4.15am, in order to beat the heat.

We travelled in the back of pick-up trucks along rutted dirt roads to the border, watching the sun rise as we travelled east and saw rustic Cambodia slowly spring to life.

Kate and Kath on the truck

The border crossing was painless and suddenly we were in Thailand, mucky brown from all the dust mingled with sweat! The air-con vans to Bangkok were a blessing.

Time to get some serious shopping in, catch a film with waitress service in VIP seats and then we fly to Phuket tomorrow to soak up the sun and catch up on some much needed sleep.

See you all in a week!

Majestic Angkor

Getting up at 5am was worth it. We'll let the photos do the talking...

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Our group at the Tomb Raider temple

Monday, February 20, 2006


What a journey! It began with a super early at 5.45 to get to the speed boat launch for the trip to Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. The restaurant near the launch was somewhat inappropriately named "Titanic".

The journey was beautiful: through Cambodian countryside, past floating villages; shacks lined the river banks, raised several metres on stilts to escape the wet season waters when the flow of the river reverses and goes from the Mekong delta to fill up lake Tonlé Sap.

The boat was like an enhanced narrow boat and we spent the early morning sunbathing on the roof. About midday, Kate and I went downstairs to escape the burning sun, only to be greeted by a 'pop' as the rear of the boat filled rapidly with acrid, black smoke. The pilot and crew, who didn't, or wouldn't, speak a word of English, went to the back and tinkered with their spanners as we floated aimlessly. We went outside to the fresher, but baking air. There was no land in sight and the boat started listing significantly to one side. After thirty minutes, the sun drove us inside, only to discover water seeping up through the bolts on the steel floor. No lifejackets. No lifeboats. No working radio. No phone signal. The crew were nowhere to be seen, still fiddling with the engine. People were becoming noticably agitated.

An hour later, there was a click. Then, a thud. The engines chugged into gear and the boat sped forward, to everyone's applause and the bilge pumps started working overtime.

We were transferred to several smaller boats when we hit the northern side of the lake to take us up-river, past the amazing floating villages, and incredible poverty, towards the pick-up point where hoardes of tuk-tuks, beggars, pick-pockets and bag porters all clammered for our dollars.

We made it safely to Siem Reap but in my worst nightmares, we're still trying to swim for shore.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Killing Fields

There are several sites around Phnom Penh which tell two stories: one of a majestic, powerful empire which ruled one thousand years ago, covering much of south-east Asia and build the temples such as Angkor Wat; and another of a period from 1965 to 1998 where first the Americans and then people of their own flesh and blood, the Khmer Rouge, systematically murdered the Cambodians.

It's hard to put any of this into words, apart from to say that today was a day where we really discovered the inexplicable evil that humans can do. Even more so than visiting the various war sites around Vietnam.

Everyone was silent as we walked around the prison S-21, now a museum, which housed Pol Pot's interoggaters and torturers. The pictures on the walls showed the place, and the bodies, as they were found when the Vietnamese finally kicked out the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh in 1979.

We followed the route along which the prisoners were taken to one of the nearby killing fields. A commemoration tower stands straight, filled with 8,000 battered skulls, all dug from the surrounding fields. The holes of the mass graves are still visible with the occasional bone and cloth still embedded in the hardened mud.

Surprisingly, many of the high ranking leaders of the Khmer Rouge hold government positions after defecting and have never been brought to account for their crimes.

Cambodia is still suffering, although since the death of Pol Pot in 1998 things are slowly improving. The wars destroyed much of the farmland and irrigation systems: so crucial in such a sweltering hot country. The land mines are still killing and maiming although through international efforts most seem to have been recovered.

There are beggars everywhere. Many are children and many others horribly deformed or mutilated from the war. Despite that, the Cambodians are mostly incredibly friendly and the kids, once you get past the "One dollar. You buy my postcards? One dollar." line, have a great sense of fun and humour.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Goodnight, Vietnam!

It's time to pack our bags and head west into deepest, darkest Cambodia.

We've successfully met up with our tour which leaves tomorrow at 5.45am. No time to write about Saigon now but it's been wonderful and a fascinating, and at times horrible, insight into Vietnam's history.

We may not have time to do any updates over the next week so you'll have to wait for the plethora when we arrive in Bangkok in seven days.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cu Chi

The big daddy of the Vinh Moc tunnels: Cu Chi's tunnels are a huge network spanning hundreds of kilometres underground.

They were built by the Viet Minh (the same as the Viet Cong, but an earlier name for them) during the French War. Subsequently, they were used to fight against the Americans, to devastating effect. The tunnels were so well hidden that one of them famously had an entrance/exit in the middle of an American base. It stayed undiscovered for years.

The day was moving and one that really hit home the horror of war; more so than anywhere else we visited.

We were shown a vast array of booby traps, designed to horrificly injure, debilitate, disfigure and sometimes, if the victim was lucky, to kill. From simple spikes stuck in a rice paddy and hidden by the water, to welcome US parachutists as they land; to traps which encased someone's leg, ramming spikes down the entire length; to beds of eight inch iron nails which would swing down and impale a US soldier kicking open a door.

Dotted around were rifleman points: holes in the ground, camouflaged by a wooden lid covered in leaves. A Viet Cong would wait to hear the Americans pass over before popping his or her head out and shooting them in the back. A tunnel led them to safety. The Vietnamese are significantly smaller than Westerners: Mark could only get in this far!

Tanks were left abandoned, their tracks blown off by a mine. We could still see the bullet marks around the sides and turret, tracing the path of the American occupants trying to flee.

Only 100m of the tunnels are open: the rest are home to snakes and other wild animals. 100m was enough.

Entrances every 30m were used by most of the tour group to escape the cloying humidity and the immense claustrophobia as the clay walls clamped down on our limbs. We crawled through virtual darkness on our hands and knees. The only awareness of others in the tunnel came from headbutting the bum of the person in front as they navigated through the blackness.

It was eerie and disturbing to emerge out of the tunnels into a small hut to the sounds of nearby gunfire. It was only the nearby rifle range but the noise was phenomenal and we felt like we'd gone back in time thirty years. It was only a glimpse of what it was like during the war, but enough to know that we never want to be involved.

Given this, Mark was reluctant to have a go on the rifle range but it was too good an opportunity to miss. Paying an exhorbitant five dollars got five bullets for an AK47 which Mark fired into a cow at 20 metres. A picture of a cow that is...the rumours of firing bazookas at grazing cows appeared unfounded.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Mui Ne

At first appearances, Mui Ne is pretty dull. It's a 15km strip of beach resorts and not much else.

Mark wanted to do some windsurfing but the only place nearby was extortionate. But, with a bit of exploring we had an amazing time.

The geography of the place is fantastic. Our first morning we walked up the 'Fairy Spring': a small river that flows from a waterfall to the beach, just past our resort. The ankle-deep water is rust red, the colour coming from the sand it flows over. Small sand-dunes line the sides, interspersed with eerie limestone rock formations.

By 10am it was getting too hot to do much apart from hit the beach and soak up some rays. The clouds covered the sky after lunchtime and we walked the "2km" down the road, according to our greasy-haired hotel receptionist, to the nearest ATM. 1.5 hours and maybe 5 miles later we finally came across the fishing village. We have never seen so many boats in one place.

We found the ATM, had a refreshing Bia Hoi (cheapest beer so far: 30p for 2 litres but that doesn't take into account paying for the plastic chair which Mark broke as he leant backwards to everyone elses hilarity) and began the trek back to give our receptionist a lesson in distance estimation.

The next day we went sand-sledging. A short moto-taxi ride away from Mui Ne are the imaginatively named "Red Sand Dunes". Hoardes of kids surround you as you approach with hard plastic sheets shouting "Sir!", "Miss!", "Come sleding with me!". They are, of course, all adorably cute and pout terribly when you choose someone else to take you up onto the slopes.

Kim and Linh were our guides. They throw sand down the slope to make it faster and then load the sledge with sand to increase the weight and prevent you from slipping off. Then, it's a big push and you're flying down to the bottom before traipsing to the next, even bigger slope. The photos are great but it's hard to find a memory card reader round here to upload the photos.

One and a half hours of walking up and down the dunes and we were sweaty and shattered but the kids were still running rings around us. Better than any theme park and at 1.5USD for both of us, so much cheaper!